George Calombaris On MasterChef, Greek Culture & Mindful Innovation

George Dimitrios Calombaris, if the name doesn’t have ‘boom, boom, shake the room!’ ringing in your ears, you most definitely reside in outer space. Judge on MasterChef Australia, featured on the ‘Top 100 Most Influential People of Melbourne’, and a restaurateur with award-winning establishments like The Press Club; the chips stack up well in his favour. Yet, behind the myriad of accolades and relentless applause lies an unostentatious persona with a riveting source d’inspiration – spreading happiness through food. “I still have my mind in the clouds. I still have my feet on the ground. I still have the same responsibility towards my diners as when I first started cooking,” he shares. Unveiling what maketh George Calombaris in this exclusive feature, #DSSCSecretConversations decodes everything Greek and beyond with this Master Chef.

One of the world’s most loved judges on one of the world’s most loved cooking shows – Calombaris states the idea was beyond the realm of his fancy. In the early days of his career, “Leave me alone while I peel my onions,” is the only response such a suggestion would have prompted. With food as his dharma and tackling challenges as his karma, Calombaris has gone from strength to strength. “Pressure is a privilege, it propels you to move forward,” he says. Being on the run is an occupational hazard and still leading service at The Press Club, he shares, “No disrespect to a singer, but bands play a few gigs a week? We play lunch & dinner every single day of the week. We’re always on.” Famous for successfully building a well-oiled machinery that works in an effortlessly slick fashion, he humbly credits the success to his team, “Great things can only be achieved with great people around and all my head chefs are amazing! They let me do what I do best, being creative and planning the next move, and they go out there and make it happen.” The efficacy and efficiency of Team GC translates seamlessly for the diner, ensuring a memorable experience as soon as you walk through his doors, “We’re in the entertainment business. I tell my staff not to come in if they aren’t happy. I’ll personally help you with whatever support you need but the diner doesn’t need your worries.”

Image: timeout.com; George Calombaris at his two-hats restaurant, The Press Club.

Drawing inspiration from around the world, Calombaris shares, “I do not walk with blinkers on. I walk with an open mind and an open heart, and I’m constantly awed by things.” Currently, the desi tandoor has him enthralled and he’s exploring ways of using this traditional clay oven at Gazi when it’s revamped next year. Like every tree seeks nutrition from its roots, Calombaris continually siphons from his most compelling muse – his Greek heritage. “Greece has one of the five blue zones in the world and there’s a reason why people there live so long. Their plant-driven diet has a lot to do with it,” he shares. Using his childhood memories as a compass, he reminisces, “When my grandmother immigrated to Australia in the late ‘50s, Extra Virgin Olive Oil was solely available at chemists and when my grandmother’s chemist found out she was using it for cooking, he went into hysteria, shouting ‘you’re going to die, it’s cancerous!’ Extra virgin olive oil is the number one oil in the world, and it’s funny how we were thinking back then.”

In the last decade, the culinary landscape has witnessed a two pronged shift with the fulcrum resting on a bed of modernisation. An exponential use of technology continues to seep into kitchens, and it is paralleled by modernisation & revamping of traditional cuisines – often perceived as the Royal Flush on the table. As a strong advocate of the principle – Innovate with Integrity, his plates are lauded as an ode to the Greek classics, be it at Jimmy Grants or Hellenic Republic. “I’m perpetually telling chefs not to innovate at the cost of the original, because there is nothing better than that,” he says. Applauding Chef Manish Mehrotra for his contribution to India’s culinary revolution, the gent with razor sharp wit adds, “I always tell people to celebrate such luminaries, because they are the ones putting your cuisine on the global map.” Talking about the stereotypes about Greek and Indian cuisines that plague the world, Calombaris shares, “Our cuisines are so diverse and interesting, yet no one can even pronounce the names properly. Greek food isn’t just about tzatziki and moussaka and Indian food isn’t just about butter chicken & naan. Only the Italians have promoted their cuisine right, teaching everyone to say, ‘prosciutto’ accurately.”

Constantly questioning and pushing the envelope, he champions the cause of food recycling, “I grew up in a family where you don’t waste food. And it’s not just about money, there are people starving out there, so why not recycle food?” As Ambassador for Australia’s leading food rescue charity, OzHarvest, he recycles food from all restaurants of his parent company, MAdE Establishments. With topics like food wastage and mindful innovation close to his heart, he speaks with equal fervour about consuming local and indigenous, “For example, in Australia we shouldn’t be eating lamb & beef, it’s not indigenous and we’re probably the biggest consumers of lamb & beef (per capita) in the world. So, it’s a constant discussion and battle.” Speaking of experimenting, Calombaris agrees that there are different strokes for different folks and he reveals, “It’s the fun of it! If everyone just loves one thing, you’re doing something very wrong. I expect that at The Press Club people won’t love all the food. Just like when you visit the Guggenheim Museum, you can’t possibly love everything you see. At one point you’re ought to say ‘What the hell is this?’

No tête-à-tête with George Calombaris can be replete without a little something about the show that’s taking over tellies across the globe, MasterChef, and as we down our last espresso, he unveils, “Seeing the contestants passion for cooking reinvigorates my love for the industry. It’s a privilege to be on the show, it changes your life.” With over seventy-five percent of the contestants through the years now established in the industry, a privilege it is indeed. And the camaraderie behind the scenes is stronger than a potent blue cheese, “Some days I just go in early and we all chat in the caravan. They’re together in the same house for six months, so you’ve got to help them.” However, squabbles are intolerable and an impudent attitude will get you nowhere in the show, “If you don’t lookout for each other, you won’t go very far in this.” Practicing what they preach, the judging trio are as close off-camera as they are on-screen, “We love and adore each other. We’re friends & family. We know when one of us is angry and what to do to help them.” Unveiling how food is a constant through their friendship, Calombaris shares, “We eat away from the show as much as we eat during it!”

Phenomenal plating skills being another trademark of Calombaris, he shares, “I’m still in the kitchen, I’m still at the pass, and I screen everything that goes on the plate.” Armed with unparalleled ardour for food stemming from the days when the kitchen was his nonna’s domain, this ace chef has many more cards up his sleeve, and as we bid adieu he shares, “Thirty-eight and I still have lots of petrol left in the tank. I often have to remind myself I’m not eighteen anymore.”

 

Location Courtesy: Roseate House, Asset 10, Hospitality District, Aerocity, New Delhi

Featured Image Courtesy: placeandfoods.com